Figuring out when to go back to work after a mastectomy can be tough. It’s a decision often discussed by MyBCTeam members who are holding down a job while undergoing breast cancer treatment. Members share their experiences and look for guidance from one another.
“I have a mastectomy and reconstruction (expander, implant) surgery next week,” shared one member. “I’m working full time in an office, and my job is quite stressful every day. I’m thinking of taking four weeks off to escape from the stressful work. Would it be too long?”
Another member weighed in: “I had a bilateral mastectomy and no reconstruction. I planned to go back in six weeks but had some tissue necrosis at my incision line on both breasts. Give yourself as much time as you need, and don’t let anyone force you back or make you feel guilty. Treat yourself to the rest. You’re going to need it!”
Each person’s condition is unique, and your health care team is an essential resource to help you determine when you’re ready to make a smooth transition back to work. Here are some topics to keep in mind as you discuss time off work with your doctor, employer, and family.
A mastectomy is surgery to remove some or all of the breast tissue, often due to breast cancer, to stop the spread of cancer. A mastectomy often includes the removal of one or more lymph nodes in the armpit, which can affect how well you can move and especially arm function. Some people also choose to have breast reconstruction surgery at the same time as their mastectomy, which may make recovery time longer.
The average hospital stay after a mastectomy is one or two nights, though in some cases, it may be appropriate and safe to go home on the day of surgery. After a mastectomy, a temporary drain that consists of a tube connected to a collection bulb is inserted near the surgical site to prevent build-up of fluid that can occur after surgery. Surgical drains are usually removed within two weeks of surgery at a follow-up visit with your doctor once the drainage has slowed down.
Many people wonder how much time one should take off work for a mastectomy, but there’s no set answer. Some people are ready to resume their normal activities within about four weeks. However, depending on the type of mastectomy and whether you undergo breast reconstruction, it may take a few months to recover enough to return to regular activities and a full work schedule. On average, most people return to work in three to six weeks,
The amount of time it will take for you to return to work will depend on several factors, including some of the following.
If your job requires heavy lifting or other kinds of physical exertion, you may need extra time to recover. Your doctor can advise you on recovery time if you perform work that requires more physical strength. “I took nine weeks off, but I’m in a very physically demanding job,” a MyBCTeam member said.
If your mastectomy and treatment plan includes chemotherapy or radiation therapy after surgery (known as adjuvant therapy), your recovery time may also be longer. One member wrote, “After four months of chemo, double mastectomy one month later, then six weeks of radiation, I took a total of eight months off. But I have great benefits.”
If you undergo breast reconstruction at the same time as your mastectomy, your recovery time will likely take longer than if you have just the mastectomy. However, research suggests that your overall recovery time may be lower if you have the two procedures done at the same time, compared to having them done separately. You may also end up using less pain medication and spending less money overall if you have them both at once. Take time to talk to your surgeon in detail about these options.
Planning for your recovery from mastectomy surgery is crucial in managing the time you’ll need to heal and feel well enough for routine daily activities. It also ensures a smooth return to work. Before you have a mastectomy, your oncology team will provide you with information on how to properly care for your surgical site and arm restrictions after a mastectomy. Make sure you understand the recovery process and have any supplies you may need.
Be sure you and your caregivers understand your medication schedules and how to manage your home care to help ensure that healing goes as well as possible. You’ll likely need to plan ahead for:
If you need help with exercises or still have difficulty moving your arm or shoulder four weeks after a mastectomy, talk to your doctor about a referral for physical therapy.
Along with your physical health, your emotional and mental well-being may be affected by a mastectomy. People who undergo a mastectomy commonly experience depression, anxiety, and fear. Body image can also suffer, causing emotional distress. Managing your mental health is an essential part of your recovery and quality of life after a mastectomy. Feeling strong psychologically is also essential for your return to work.
Research has shown that psychological nursing care can help relieve emotional stress people sometimes experience after a mastectomy. Your health care provider can give you a referral for a mental health professional if you’re feeling anxious or depressed about your mastectomy.
You may want to prepare ahead by getting some psychological counseling before the surgery. After the surgery, you may want to consider mental health counseling by video chat at home while you’re recovering. Psychological counseling may also provide needed support once you go back to work.
After a mastectomy, some people start by working part time before returning to full-time work. It can be helpful to talk to your supervisor or human resources administrator well in advance of your mastectomy about potential options for work flexibility. Working part time or working from home is sometimes possible after a mastectomy, depending on your job.
“I worked from home part time after two weeks, but I took four weeks before going into the office,” a MyBCTeam member shared.
If your job is physically demanding, you may want to discuss options for modifying your responsibilities. Reaching out to your workplace supervisor can help you get support. However, you have a right to privacy, and you may want to carefully consider how much medical information you want to share with people at work.
U.S. federal law entitles you to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for a serious health condition if you work for a company with 50 or more employees. In addition, your spouse, child, or parent may qualify for leave too if you need their care while recovering. You may also have disability insurance that provides some of your income during your recovery. Your case manager can help you learn more about your benefits.
MyBCTeam is the social network for people with breast cancer and their loved ones. On MyBCTeam, more than 64,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with breast cancer.
Have you returned to work after a mastectomy? How much time did you take for your recovery? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.